No Charge for Baggage

No Charge for Baggage

Scripture: Matthew 10:10-15 I am happy to see all of you here today and I feel privileged to be the “preacher of the day.” I think there would have been more people here, but when they saw the sermon title on the marquee, they said: “I know what he’s going to say; I’ve heard it all before, so I think I’ll stay home and work in my garden.” Here’s what I think THEY think I will say on this topic: That lots of us have lots of baggage, but God doesn’t care how much baggage we have. He loves and accepts us. Ok. That IS what I am going to say, but with a whole lot more words (wait! Don’t leave!) and I hope a couple different perspectives. The first thing those travelers up Van Aken need to know is: I’m NOT talking about baggage for the journey into the NEXT life! I’m talking about right here, right now.   Here’s what Rev. Cam Miller has to say about that: As far as I am concerned, and this is just one man’s opinion, way too much about Christianity is invested in the other side of that choice. I think it is an enormously profound act of faith to be engaged in a spiritual practice that pays no attention to the other side until we get there. Personally, it seems to me that the primary act of faith is to trust God with the unknown and focus on this side without anxiety about the other side. First, let’s make a distinction between REAL baggage and metaphorical baggage. I’m embarrassed by both. When I tell my wife I’m just going to our little house in Pennsylvania to cut the grass, I can see her looking at my huge overnight bag, my fishing equipment, my books, my computer, my chargers (can’t go anywhere without chargers), my grass cutting accessories, lots of food, my hedge clippers and my chain saw (in case a tree has fallen across the driveway) and you get the idea. I’m sure she is thinking: HOW long are you staying? That kind of baggage is certainly a symptom of the metaphorical or spiritual baggage that this sermon is mostly about (what does it say about me that I can’t go anywhere without a book? –or a cell phone?). Back to spiritual baggage: There’s the baggage of the PAST—the things you’ve done that you feel guilty about and can never forgive yourself for. We can easily paraphrase Psalm 51:3 to read: “The weight of my offenses is before me always.” Then there are the secrets that you are harboring about yourself—the stuff you’d die a thousand deaths if people knew, (but...

Read More

Books of a Lifetime

Books of a Lifetime

I work at a Catholic College, and a priest recently donated his entire library to us.  Before the books  went to the library, however, the administration made them available to any of our faculty and staff Twenty open boxes of books were put on benches in a hallway of the college, free for the taking.   I couldn’t resist looking at them. But the experience of looking felt like going through someone’s clothes after they had died.  To me, books are intimate; they are personal; they reflect my soul.  I have gotten lost in books.  I have read and re-read my favorites.  They are like food to me.  They take me out of the cares and humdrum of daily living and transport me to wonderful places.  They stimulate ideas and action.  They show me how to do things.  They sometimes hypnotize me as TV can do (only no commercials).  I hardly go anywhere without a book. These were the lifetime collection of a priest.  There were lots of volumes on scripture and spirituality and theology.   Next to books on celibacy were books on cooking (I chose one for my wife that promised delectable soups).  There were books and tapes on education, on the Catholic Church, on history.  I didn’t see many novels, and wondered if he had held these back or thrown them away. It struck me how brave it is to put your books on display.  When Amazon or Book of the Month clubs have their editors review “the best books of the month or the year,” notice that they rarely include something “low brow.”  If my books were on display, I’d feel as if my life were out there for a preliminary “last judgment.”  I’d certainly cull the black sheep from the herd, even if I dearly loved some of those black sheep, those low-brow romances or mysteries that seemed to broaden my vision, massage my hurts and teach me the power of love and the mystery of God… I suppose that’s irreverent to say. The blogger Sarah Bessey writes that she made a pact with her husband to read one book a month (http://sarahbessey.com/husband-made-deal-2014-need-read-challenge).  The catch was that she got to choose his books and he got to choose the ones for her to read.  Then they’d write about why they chose that particular book for their spouse and the spouse would write he or she got out of it.  When Sarah saw the list of 12 books for her to read in 2014, she felt programmed for failure.  She loved fiction; her husband rarely read anything in that category.  She put “To Kill a Mockingbird” on his list. I’d make the same pact with my wife,...

Read More

Putting Christmas Away

Putting Christmas Away

Although my wife and I were preoccupied and somewhat stingy this year in putting up Christmas decorations, we still had candles in the windows and a tree and a crèche made of olive wood from Bethlehem on the mantel, and a poor Norfolk Island Pine that bravely stands in for a Christmas tree in our backyard window. So as our guests arrived for the first time for a series of meetings we were hosting in our home, I made sure I told them that according to some church traditions, Christmas lasts until February 2nd!  In fact, my wife and I know someone who changes out the Christmas balls on the tree for Valentine’s day hearts. For many people – not all – Christmas is magic, and takes them back to carefree days, expectant days, with the glow of new life in the manger, perhaps surrounded in their memories  by a pageant of children dressed up like sheep and a suitably awestruck Mary and Joseph uncharacteristically silent before the mystery of His birth. And so, to put Christmas away seems like a surrender to the bleakness of winter. This Eucharistic table reminds us, however, cautions us NOT to do that.  This table forbids it.  No matter what we happens to our church or our families, there will always be people, us included, who gather around this table, receive sustenance from it, strength to tackle the next problem, the next week, the new year.  We look at each other and smile and know we are part of a family and we are family makers as we go out from this table and invite others to join us on our way, his way, the way of Jesus, who, on the night before he died, took bread and wine into his...

Read More

Umbrellas

Umbrellas

It has rained so often this spring and summer, especially on weekends, and Hurricane #6 is sending Floridians back up North, that I thought I would preach on umbrellas.   For the past 25 or 30 years, whenever I come into my office out of the rain, I let my umbrella dry by opening it in a corner.  One day this past year, at Chagrin Falls, someone came into my office, saw my umbrella, and looked as if she would faint.  She pointed at it as if she had discovered some ugly rodent:  “Don’t you know what bad luck that is, to open an umbrella inside the house?”  I smiled and mumbled something about not believing in that kind of superstition, but then got to thinking about it afterwards.    You know, a lot of bad things have happened to me and my loved ones in the past 25 or 30 years, and I’m wondering if opening all of those umbrellas inside might not have been the cause of them!   As many of you know, I work for North Royalton City Schools, where they’ve had a lot of rain and flooding.  At our first meeting of the whole North Royalton staff to begin this school year, the Superintendent showed a 22- minute movie narrated by a photographer for the National Geographic magazine.   His name is DeWitt Jones.  I brought the video home for a night so Bernadette and my Father and I could watch it.  It reminded us of how much we loved looking at the pictures in that magazine when we were younger, and how we used to save each issue, as if to throw one away would be a sacrilege.   The photographer showed many examples of the pictures he took and tried to explain how he got not just good, but great pictures.  For example, he showed a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with the crescent moon just above it, and then another one of the same bridge 15 minutes later that was absolutely gorgeous because the light had changed and the sun was nearly down so the moon and the arches of the bridge were outlined in front of the colors of the sunset.  He described how one day he missed taking pictures of a field of dandelions, but then returned when they had gone to seed and created magical vignettes of light streaming through the puff balls.  And of course there were the faces: the face of a little boy who put his hand over one of those jets of water like the dancing fountains at Tower City and he caught his picture just as the water squirted out...

Read More

The Seventh Last Word

Luke 23:44-46   “It was now around midday, and darkness came over the whole land until midafternoon with an eclipse of the sun.  The curtain in the sanctuary was torn in two.  Jesus uttered a loud cry and said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  After he said this, he expired.”   “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”   I want these to be my last words.  I practice them every day, just in case.  I also practice saying “I love you” to my wife and children and hope the one phrase contains the other.  But I wonder what will it take for these to be my last words?  I was present when both my Mother and my Father died.  My Mother died in her own bed at her home after nine days of suffering (“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she told us).  My father died in our house here in Shaker Heights in the room that was his when he came to live with us after not being able to live alone in Pittsburgh.  We four children and our spouses were all around these two beds when they died.  We sang Christmas carols, told them we loved them and then when the moment came, said  “Go.  Go with God.”  We probably looked like weeping cheerleaders cheering for a touchdown.   But I hated watching them die.  And when it comes my turn,  I hope I’m half as good a dyer as they were.   Good Friday forces me to consider it.   What will it take, I wonder?  Supreme confidence? Will shaky confidence be okay?– hope  that God will receive me, sinner though I am?   I cherish the words of the Psalms: in your boundless mercy, your loving kindness, your hesed, receive my spirit.  Father, into your hands…   –The father I’ve always wanted to welcome me, and of whom my own father was something of a model.  For so many people, they’ll have to reconstruct the concept of Father.  I mean, for the people who have never felt truly loved despite all of their physical blemishes and bulges and character defects and annoying habits or even addictions.  Do you know and believe that some people ARE loved despite all of these?  How lucky and blessed we are!   But then there’s the problem of pain.  Some people bear it a lot better than others.  Some people faint at the thought of it and scream before the dentist even touches them with his gloved hand and sharp needle.  Not everyone dies with a smile on their face or with a body  full of morphine.  There are horror stories, and so I’m afraid that in...

Read More

What is the Question?

Scripture: Matthew 22:41-46 “No one dared to ask him any more questions.” Einstein is supposed to have said: if I needed to solve a problem in one hour to save my life, I’d spend the first 55 minutes figuring out what questions to ask because if I ask the right questions, I can solve the problem in five minutes. My sermon title comes from a story told about Gertrude Stein, who is supposed to have asked her companion, Alice B. Toklas, as Gertrude lay dying: What is the answer?   To which her assistant replied: But we agreed: there ARE no answers.  To which Alice said: Then what was the question?  Questions are tricky, powerful, dangerous.   Try this.  Take your church bulletin and put a question mark behind one of the sections or names  (use mine, for example).  What have you done?  What if it had been printed that way?  Joe or somebody?  Joe, whoever he is?  Is he for real?  Is he trustworthy? I don’t know if this is true or not, but if and when you get arrested, aren’t you allowed to make one phone call?  Well, what if, this morning, you were assured of getting the answer to ONE question?  What would you ask?  Or maybe the first thing to clarify is WHOM would you ask? There might be some risk involved.  I mean, you could turn to the person next to you and ask: “Are my glasses on straight?”  But you can’t ask: “How old are you, anyway?”  And you wouldn’t expect a truthful answer if you asked: “Do I look fat in these clothes?”  And we’ve all been to meetings where people have stood up and have dressed up their opinions as questions by starting their questions, for example, with the words, “Would you comment on the fact that…”  This kind of question ranks right up there with: “You’re not going to wear that tie anywhere ELSE, are you?” Jesus asked a lot of questions in his role as Rabbi and Teacher.  Many teachers today use what’s called the Socratic Method to teach subjects as diverse as literature and mathematics.  Socrates had a famous student, Plato, who wrote down his teacher’s debates as Dialogues about 400 years before the birth of Jesus.  In one of them, the Republic, Bk VII, Socrates converses with Glaucon and tells the famous story called the Allegory of the Cave. Through this story, I think Plato meant to ask the question: What is real and what is just appearance?  What does an enlightened person know?  Or, as we say today, what is just smoke and mirrors (as we feel lied to every time we turn on the TV and are...

Read More